Last month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin touted the accomplishments of U.S. Africa Command, commending its leaders and personnel for tackling terrorism and making the continent more secure and stable. “Every day, AFRICOM works alongside our friends as full partners — to strengthen bonds, to tackle common threats, and to advance a shared vision of an Africa whose people are safe and prosperous,” he announced at a ceremony honoring the new AFRICOM commander, Gen. Michael Langley.
That very same day, the Defense Department’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies, a Pentagon research institution, issued a devastating report that directly refuted Austin’s positive assessments. “Militant Islamist group violence in Africa has risen inexorably over the past decade, expanding by 300 percent during this time,” reads the analysis. “Violent events linked to militant Islamist groups have doubled since 2019.”
Austin’s commentary and the Pentagon’s contradictory report come as the Biden administration has ramped up the U.S. war in Somalia, turning the impoverished Horn of Africa nation into one of the prime fronts in the two-decadelong war on terror. After a lull in the spring, when AFRICOM conducted no airstrikes in Somalia, President Joe Biden approved a plan to redeploy close to 500 U.S. ground forces there — reversing an eleventh-hour withdrawal of most U.S. troops by then-President Donald Trump in late 2020 — and authorized the targeted killings of about a dozen leaders of the terrorist group al-Shabab.
In June, AFRICOM conducted an airstrike in Somalia, reportedly killing five members of al-Shabab. Just over a month later, AFRICOM announced another attack that killed two militants. In August, AFRICOM conducted at least five airstrikes that reportedly killed 17 “al-Shabaab terrorists.”
“Despite President Biden’s campaign promise to end the forever wars, Somalia remains one of the most active areas in the world for U.S. counterterrorism operations,” said Sarah Harrison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group and formerly associate general counsel at the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel, International Affairs. “That is a direct result of President Biden’s new policies, which include repositioning hundreds of U.S. forces back to Somalia and, over this summer, ramping up airstrikes. This obviously diverges from the administration’s rhetoric on winding down the U.S. war on terror and, in my opinion, is not helpful absent an internationally coordinated strategy to address conflict drivers, which are mainly political.”
Over the last 15 years, the United States has conducted no fewer than 260 airstrikes and ground raids in Somalia. Under the auspices of the secretive 127e authority — which allows U.S. Special Operations forces to train, arm, and direct local surrogates to carry out missions on behalf of America — the U.S. has also employed no fewer than five proxy forces in Somalia. The U.S. has also spent more than $2.2 billion on security assistance to the Somali military, including its elite Danab Brigade, since 2009. This is in addition to more than $3.2 billion in humanitarian and development assistance provided since 2006.
On August 9, the same day that the command conducted three airstrikes there, Austin talked up “the power of partnership in Somalia, where AFRICOM supports our partners as they lead the fight against al-Shabab.” That “power” and the billions of U.S. tax dollars behind it have produced little positive impact, according to the Pentagon’s Africa Center. “Somalia continues to see a steady rise in militant Islamist events and fatalities,” according to the report, which notes that deaths resulting from attacks have jumped 11 percent since last year. “The record 2,221 violent events reported are a 45 percent increase from the 3-year average from 2018-2020.”
“The policy to address protracted conflict in Somalia has been largely militaristic even though the required solution is chiefly political.”
While the U.S. has been fighting al-Shabab since the 2000s, the group was “linked to 36 percent of all militant Islamist group violence recorded on the continent this past year,” according to the Africa Center. The group holds power in wide swaths of the countryside and runs a shadow state complete with courts and tax authorities that netted the group $120 million in 2020, according to U.S. government estimates. Al-Shabab is also increasingly able to take on the Somali military. While Austin noted that America’s “persistent military presence in Somalia” allows the United States to “more effectively advise, assist, and train African forces as they combat the threat of al-Shabab,” violence by the group increasingly consists of battles with state security forces — a jump from 56 percent of attacks in 2019 to 72 percent in 2022. Al-Shabab is also able to conduct complex and devastating attacks in cities, including the capital, Mogadishu. Late last month, the group’s 30-hour siege of the upscale Hayat Hotel there left close to 140 dead or wounded.
“Notwithstanding 15 years of military involvement by the United States and the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, al-Shabab remains powerful in its ability to conduct complex attacks. That’s because the policy to address protracted conflict in Somalia has been largely militaristic even though the required solution is chiefly political,” said Harrison. “This war will not end on the battlefield, as U.S. officials — military and civilian — have told me. The United States and other international actors cannot continue to lean on military containment of al-Shabab. Their goal must be to end the war, which will require supporting reconciliation efforts led by the federal government of Somalia and a commitment to eventual negotiations with al-Shabab.”
As dismal as the U.S. record has been in Somalia, the results are even worse in the other main African theater of the U.S. war on terror, the Sahel — especially Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger.
Just before the forever wars got underway after 9/11, the United States searched for terrorist threats in Africa but failed to locate them. A 2000 report from the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, for example, examined the “African security environment.” While noting the existence of “internal separatist or rebel movements” in “weak states,” as well as militias and “warlord armies,” it made no mention of Islamic extremism or major transnational terror threats. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the State Department counted a total of just nine terrorist attacks in 2002 and 2003 in all of Africa, resulting in a combined 23 casualties.
Just before the forever wars got underway after 9/11, the United States searched for terrorist threats in Africa but failed to locate them.
Despite this, the U.S. poured more than $1 billion into the nations of West Africa through various military assistance efforts, including the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a program designed to “counter and prevent violent extremism” in the region. The United States also employed a host of other episodic training programs, including the African Crisis Response Initiative, the African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance program, the International Military Education and Training program, the Counterterrorism Fellowship Program, the Global Peace Operations Initiative, and the Joint Combined Exchange Training program. In Burkina Faso alone, the U.S. has poured in hundreds of millions of dollars through more than 15 security assistance programs. The payoff has been abysmal.
“The Sahel,” according to the Africa Center report, “has seen a quadrupling in the number of violent extremist events since 2019. Along with Mozambique, this is the sharpest spike in violence of any region on the continent during this timeframe.” The 2,612 attacks by militants in the Sahel over the past year outpaced even Somalia in terms of violence by Islamist militants. The 7,052 resulting fatalities account for almost half of all such deaths reported on the continent. And a quarter of those fatalities were civilians — a 67 percent jump over 2021.
Austin briefly acknowledged the insecurity in the Sahel without mentioning the role that officers trained under the many U.S. security assistance programs in the region have played in undermining the very governments the U.S. has sought to shore up. “Some African militaries have pushed out civilian governments,” Austin noted. “So let’s be clear: A military exists to serve its people — and not the other way around.” The many U.S. training programs employed in the Sahel have not, however, made this clear to all of their graduates. Since 2008, U.S.-trained officers have attempted at least nine coups (and succeeded in at least eight) across five West African countries, including Burkina Faso (three times), Guinea, Mali (three times), Mauritania, and Gambia.
Earlier this year, for example, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who participated in at least a half-dozen U.S. training exercises, according to AFRICOM, overthrew the government of Burkina Faso. In 2020, Col. Assimi Goïta, who worked with U.S. Special Operations forces for years, headed the junta that overthrew Mali’s government. After staging the coup, Goïta stepped down and took the job of vice president in a transitional government tasked with returning Mali to civilian rule. But nine months later, he seized power again in a second coup.
The Africa Center found that about 95 percent of the increase in militant Islamist violence on the continent since 2019 was centered in just two theaters, the Sahel and Somalia. But worrying trends are emerging elsewhere, it said.
Violence in the Sahel has increasingly drifted south into the relatively peaceful littoral states along the Gulf of Guinea. Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, and Togo have experienced nearly 20 terrorist attacks in the past year, according to the Africa Center. Violence by the militant group Ahlu Sunnah wa Jama’a in Mozambique is also on the rise, increasing 17 percent since 2020. And while attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria have dropped substantially, the Islamic State of West Africa conducted about as many attacks and killed double the number of civilians as its rival terror group, a 50 percent increase over 2021.
All told, the Africa Center reported a record 6,255 “violent events” by militant Islamist groups in 2022, a 21 percent jump from last year. Fatalities resulting from these attacks also spiked almost 50 percent since 2019, bringing this year’s death toll to a staggering 14,635.
As he closed his remarks last month, Austin congratulated AFRICOM on building security and fostering peace on the continent. Yet that same day, the Africa Center noted that “militant Islamist violence in Africa has risen continuously over the past decade, doubling in just the past 3 years.”